A teenager asked Bill Richardson, “What did you say to Saddam?”
“I said, ‘You gotta let these guys go, but if you don’t, don’t shoot me.’”
The crowd laughed.
On a hot summer Saturday in 1995, Bill Richardson walked with the parade in Mora, dodging fresh horse pies, grasping hands, throwing candy, hugging grandmas and mugging for everyone with a camera.
Just back from Iraq, the New Mexico congressman had persuaded Saddam Hussein to free two Americans. Richardson was a national hero and the star of the Mora Fiesta parade.
I had a magazine assignment to shadow him for a day. That made three reporters tagging along, plus a People magazine photographer shooting the famous dimples.
Richardson, a Democrat, hadn’t missed this parade since he was elected to the 3rd Congressional District in 1982. And he never rode. “He’d rather be out with the people,” said aide Joe Sandoval.
Wearing a western-cut shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, he walked ahead of the Bill Richardson truck blasting mariachi music. A kid with a microphone announced: “Say hello to Bill Richardson, fighter for New Mexico!”
Richardson said, “This is the kind of politics I love – touching people.” He loved being a politician and didn’t understand why the word should be an insult.
Nobody could tell that he’d returned from Washington at 4 a.m.
“That allows me to do two parades and a town meeting,” he said, plus several informal meetings, a testimonial for Bruce and Alice King in Moriarty and dinner with Navajo artist R.C. Gorman in Taos. He would end the day shaking hands at the Taos Fiestas.
For years he returned every other weekend and sprinted from event to event.
That’s how I’ll remember the man who left us suddenly last week at age 75. He played his many roles with joy.
He was a long-serving congressman, governor, UN ambassador, Department of Energy Secretary, and candidate for president.
His accomplishments were many: the spaceport, the Rail Runner, reduced DWIs, better pay for teachers, and a tax cut, among others.
I have nothing to add to the usual allegations of pay to play.
My beef was his penchant for appointing politicos. He said he liked appointing politicians because they knew how to get things done. But they didn’t.
“The governor’s appointments went far beyond the usual cabinet positions to extend his reach deep into each bureaucratic warren,” I wrote in 2006.
The result was to politicize state government down to its toenails, a condition that haunts us to this day. Former Gov. Gary Johnson said we got people who were loyal to Richardson but not necessarily to taxpayers.
On the other hand, as Richardson began his second term, economic developers no longer complained that nobody had heard of New Mexico. The state was visible because our governor was visible. A guy who had to overcome the label of “carpetbagger” in his first race loved New Mexico, and it loved him back.
His approval rating soared. He won re-election because New Mexico was moving again after eight years of gridlock under Gary Johnson.
“He gets an A for communicating his vision for a better New Mexico,” I wrote in 2006. “Our chief executive loves this place the way you love your child, and he wants good things for it.”
As a business writer, I appreciated his embrace of business. Richardson earned a pro-business reputation during both terms as governor. He involved himself directly in economic development and pushed the Legislature for incentives. He told the outside world that New Mexico was open for business. NAFTA had Richardson’s name all over it.
When Richardson finished his second term as governor, I wrote. “He had a vision for New Mexico that was bigger than our own.” I still believe that.
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